I decided to take a quick roadtrip through the Midwest this summer – the middle of the Midwest, the part where no one goes for vacation!  I drove across northern Iowa, then down its Western border, and continued following the Missouri River through its namesake state all the way down to its mouth in St. Louis.  I popped in to South Dakota and Nebraska, but Kansas offered too much traffic for me to brave.  You don’t think of traffic when you think of Kansas, do you?  


In case you thought Iowa was nothing but corn, you can rest assured that there are soybeans here, too.


This giant statue of Pocahontas, along with a lot of historic signs about the real “Indian princess,” filled the town of Pocahontas, Iowa. Yes, you are remembering history correctly: Pocahontas was a figure in early Virginia history, at a time when no one even knew Ohio existed, let alone Iowa.


Somewhere around Oelwein, IA, the Driftless Area ends and the land flattens out. I was in foreign territory once I’d crossed the Wapsapinnicon… which became obvious as KwikStars gave way to Kum & Gos.


Onawa, Iowa (that’s 2/3 vowels for those counting) has the widest main street in the world. According to the sign.

This wasn’t just a whim; I had destinations in mind.  When conceiving of the trip, those sites seemed disjunct, just a mix of places and things that I might be interested in.  As I traveled, though, the pattern became obvious.  I drove through cornfields to find prairies, through a modern metropolis to find an ancient civilization.  I was exploring the beginnings of the American West, the conquering of wilderness, the root of our national psyche.  There in the cornbelt, surrounded by the simple life, I found myself feeling that I was on the cusp of great excitement.  In the middle of nowhere, at the edge of everything.  Maybe Iowa should adopt that as its new motto.


It really is corn as far as the eye can see, even in the rolling hills of Western Iowa, where the eye can see much farther…


Somewhere in the western part of Iowa, the towns get farther apart and the road ditches fill with prairie.


In addition to beans and corn, there is wind in


Iowa. These windmill farms use different technology than some of the others I have seen.

Day Trip

On Monday night, I had a nice dinner that featured some very good, but very rich sausage on a cheese flatbread.  As a result, my digestive juices were still working on it the next morning, and everything that reminded me of those sausages seemed to give extra vigor to the process.  That wouldn’t seem to be a problem, but as I was driving through south-central Wisconsin, I was assaulted by signs like this in, approaching, and around nearly every town:

I decided that, sausage signs notwithstanding, a leisurely road trip through the area would be in order, hopefully to be capped off by a hike when I was feeling more lively.  As I pulled into Lodi, WI, I thought that I might grab a bite to eat (at a small cafe just down the street from this meat market… and involving no meat products), and take a trip down memory lane.  We used to come to Lodi occasionally as kids for two reasons: so that we children could see Susie the Duck, and so that my mom could go to the antique shop.  I noted on the way in that there were new banners on the lampposts approaching downtown that touted Susie, so I swung by to say, “hello” for old time’s sake.  Alas, although she is still present as an icon in the town’s

Susie the Duck

signage and collective consciousness, she is no longer a downtown fixture herself.  “Susie,” used to be ensconced in a nest box at the point where Spring Creek flows through downtown Lodi, at a little park between two underpasses.  We would go and watch her sit there, or maybe swim around a bit, and if we were lucky we could talk my mom out of a dime so that we could split a handful of corn toss for her.  The park has been renovated, the nesting box removed or repurposed, and I saw only male mallards swimming in that stretch of creek.  Her sign still stands, though, and Susie the Duck day continues to be an important part of Lodi’s calendar!

There are a few other, much more accommodating, parks in Lodi, all along the creek that has been channelized to flow along the main street (appropriately named Water St.), through downtown, and out the other side.  And my mom would be pleased to know that, although it has changed ownership a few times, the antique store in an old church is still there (I didn’t go in, though, because I have too many memories of the hours spent there as a young’un)!

Of course, then I had to hit the other attraction that we usually included on the day trips to Lodi: the Merrimac Free Ferry.  The actual purpose of the ferry is for transportation across Lake Wisconsin, and I have used it to that end as well, but yesterday I was pretty much just taking it for fun.  The boat is pulled from one side of the lake to the other on a cable, and the trip takes less than ten minutes. About 15-20 vehicles can fit on, but some are usually larger vans or trucks (or towing boats).  Yesterday was extremely windy, and the choppy “seas” might have been too much for me if it had been a longer journey.

These girls are enjoying the trip as I did at that age

Once on the north side of the lake (actually a dammed flowage of the Wisconsin River), I thought that, being so close and all, I might just take a swing up to Devil’s Lake State Park.  The park is always amazing, but the real impetus this time came from a fellow blogger – Bob Zeller’s Texas Tweeties has been writing about the escapades of fledgling Great Blue Herons, and I wanted to see how one of our local flocks was coming along.  At the foot of the south face of East Bluff, a few dozen heron nests perch in the top of dying pines sandwiched between the CCC Parking Lot and the Outdoor Group Camp.  If you have never been in a Great Blue Heron rookery, you should definitely find one near you and check it out – the noise alone of all those big

A blurry photo of heron nests in the treetops. The accumulated acidity of their feces over the years is gradually killing off these pines.

birds is remarkable, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to see them (or the chicks!) go about their daily routines.  Yesterday was extremely windy, with the tree-tops (and the nests in them) swinging well over 10 feet from side to side in the gusts, so the birds weren’t moving around too much.  I couldn’t find any chicks peeking out of the nests yet, but I would expect that many or most have hatched by now.  I drove out of the park to the north, and headed on my way.

Devil’s Lake State Park reminds me an awful lot of Yosemite for something in the middle of the Midwest – no wonder it’s the most-visited state park in the whole region!

Next stop, a few more miles down the road, was Baxter’s Hollow, a 5,000-plus acre preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy in the Baraboo Hills.  Dogs aren’t allowed in the preserve, so I stayed on the paved road with mine, looking at a couple of different species of native honeysuckle (uncommon in these parts) twining along the road, the babbling Otter Creek, and more.  This is the time of year when the early spring flowers are done and the summer ones haven’t yet bloomed, but I enjoyed my botanizing nonetheless.  If you head to Baxter’s Hollow (which I recommend), I suggest you take along a good and detailed map or atlas that shows all of the small rural roads in the neighborhood.  This area of Sauk County is beautiful, and a meandering trip along those roads can take you past century farms and amazing rock formations, over creeks and through wooded groves, and along some steep and winding roads.


The small community of Denzer at the foot of the Baraboo Hills

Crop rotation in Sauk County, WI

Alternating corn and alfalfa is a common technique in this area for minimizing erosion.

Corn coming up! They say that an estimated 95% of the corn crop is already planted as of yesterday, compared with 75% last year. It’s certainly early to see so much of it coming up already!

Wouldn’t you love this farm, at the base of Castle Rock?

I certainly enjoyed my meander over to the town of Plain and the small family-owned Cedar Grove cheese factory.  This is another spot that was a favorite jaunt for my family as kids, and we tried to get there while it was in production so that we could actually see them making the cheese through the big display windows.  Have you ever been to a cheese factory?  If so, then you would also have recognized the distinctive smell that greeted me when I walked in, even though cheesemaking was done for the day – it is somewhat sour and acrid, and would probably be a bad smell if I didn’t associate it with great things like fresh cheese curds!  I perused the cheeses – from specialty to scraps – in the shop and picked out a couple for gifts for the hosts I would stay with later in the week (and that I hoped they’d allow me to sample in their home!).  The Cedar Grove factory installed a “living machine” around a dozen years ago, which allows them to process all of their wastewater by using hydroponic plants and microbes to break down any additives before returning the water.  If you decide to head that way for some of their delicious cheese, I’d take a tour of the factory and living machine while you’re at it, because they’re pretty interesting.

Where is your favorite road trip?  Any special places in south-west or south-central Wisconsin that you love to explore?  Check out a map of my trip to get your own ideas!

Wandering the Desert

Wandering the Desert

A "river" in the Sonoran Desert of western Arizona. This channel is flooded with water when it storms, and an ORV trail in dry weather.

Mile 5359 – 6999

October  14 – 20, 2010

Oakland, CA – Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX

I spent a week getting from the San Francisco Bay to the Texas Hill Country, passing through three deserts and four states.  For a good representation of how arid this country is, even in the agricultural areas, check out the Trip-Tick page of my journey, and note the river crossings.  I crossed a total of ten (10) rivers in the two thousand (2,000) miles of this leg, and most of those were dry.  The Colorado River (at the AZ/CA border) and the Rio Grande (where I met it in central New Mexico) were the only ones with significant water in them, until arriving in eastern Texas.  I crossed more water-bearing aqueducts than natural flowages.

That’s not to say that there isn’t life in the desert, though.  In fact, when I arrived at Joshua Tree National Park a few hours after sunset, I had been expecting silence and stillness – instead I was assaulted by the chirping of crickets, flying and crawling insects, and the noises of little lizards crawling around in the bushes.   Well, not exactly bushes – mostly in the cactus and agave.

I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit, though.  Between Oakland and Joshua Tree are 500 miles of Central California.  It looks a lot like what you might expect: very flat, very brown, lots of irrigation systems watering the vegetable crops and orchards.  In the morning, I could see workers driving the dusty roads between fields, and watering the trees individually with a small ladder truck.

Near L.A., however, the terrain got a lot more interesting, even if the vegetation maintained its end-of-summer dormancy.  Skirting the city through the hills of Pasadena and the eastern suburbs might even have been beautiful, if the smog hadn’t reduced visibility as extremely as it did.  There was almost no view into the distance, and even on the nearby hills, any green that might have remained was fogged over by the gray-brown air.  The traffic was also about what I expected for down there: horrible.  In fact, the only thing about the Los Angeles area that did not live up to my expectations was the light drizzle I got in the early evening.  Imagine that: after a week of unheard-of solid sunshine in Oregon and northern California, to get rained on in “Sunny” Southern California!  Now, I will admit that I have assurances from locals that there are really nice things about L.A., and that both the traffic and smog were uncommonly bad that day, but I’m just writing what I see…

Most of the way from the hills of Los Angeles to the Colorado Desert of southeast California was driven in darkness, but the monotony of the flat, dry landscape was still apparent.  I could clearly see why Palm Springs is both literally and figuratively an oasis on that route.  It was a little bit surreal to all of a sudden emerge from the total darkness to tastefully lit resorts and subdivisions surrounded by enormous palms.  Large lighted signs for impending concerts by famous pop stars (and once-famous pop stars) lined the road, and casinos and golf courses beckoned.   I’m not on a luxury vacation, however, so I stopped only long enough for gas before plunging again into the dark night, heading east into the heart of the desert.  After crossing a set of small mountains, it wasn’t too much longer before I got to Joshua Tree NP.

Colorado Desert in Joshua Tree National Park

I spent a night and a day there, exploring a little bit of the Colorado Desert and the Mojave to the north.   The Colorado Desert is part of the Sonoran Desert, which makes up most of southern Arizona and southeastern California, along with large portions of Sonora and Baja California in Mexico.   The Colorado (named after the river, not the state) portion of the Sonoran Desert is hotter and drier than the rest of it, however, which became apparent as I moved eastward.  In Joshua Tree, the Sonoran Desert consisted mostly of small cactus and low shrubs, but as I moved into Arizona I saw more and more large saguaro cacti, taller bushes, and plenty of lechugilla agave.  All of it looked like desert,

Just beyond Hope, AZ

however, with little grass growing between the brush or cactus, and dust blowing up at each breath of wind.

Here’s something silly that I hadn’t really realized about the desert sand, and those of you who have lived in the desert (or who have even given it a moment’s more thought than I have) will probably laugh at me: It’s really more “little rocks” than what those of us who come from wet regions see on our beaches.  Of course, that makes sense: the desert lacks not only the constant movement of water to break down its rocks, but also dense roots of vegetation, burrowing insects

Mesquite tree germinating in the desert sand

and animals, decaying organic material, and all of the other things that make sand or soil elsewhere.  And I imagine that the desert winds, which blow unchecked by trees across vast stretches of land, blows away the finer particles more quickly.

One of the interesting things about Joshua Tree NP is that it is on the border between the Colorado and Mohave Deserts, so I went north and west, which was also uphill, and found myself in a slightly cooler, slightly damper ecosystem.  I was told that it was less hot and dry, at least on the scale of yearly averages, but didn’t notice a difference myself on a sunny fall day.  The vegetation, however, was denser and taller, and the Joshua Tree (really an enormous species of agave that proliferates in those conditions) was everywhere.  Check out my next post for more pictures of the park!

Joshua Tree, Mojave Desert

After leaving Joshua Tree and driving east towards Arizona, I was struck by how much more barren the landscape became.  I didn’t have an opportunity to look into it, but I assume that human land use practices have affected the diversity of vegetation and viability of natural plant communities.  Certainly much of that area, as well as western Arizona, was fenced for grazing, though I didn’t really see much grass in there, let alone cattle.  There was more grass than I had seen in either desert in the park, however.  I’m not sure if the grass is planted or if there is just more moisture in certain locales.   In either case, though, if it’s grazed, I can imagine that the cacti would be removed to prevent harm to the animals.  Anyone with knowledge on this is welcome to inform me!

Eastern California

Sonoran Desert, western Arizona

I crossed the Colorado River at Parker, AZ, just below the dam that forms Lake Havasu.  Even in the dark, when I got out of my car, I could tell that there was moisture in the air.  It is amazing how different things smell when they are wet!  I had not particularly noticed the scent of the desert – primarily because it doesn’t smell like much at all, I think.  Of course, the vegetation by the river was also much greener, denser, and more varied, which would account for smelling more like green plants and the more humid air, but I had a similar experience in northwest Texas, as well.  There, I spent a couple days in the Guadalupe Mountains, which is on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.  Despite the higher rainfall and warmer average temperatures in that area, which bring about greater diversity and density of plant and animal species, there still wasn’t much scent in the air this time of year.  On my last morning there, however, a light drizzle fell, and it brought out that dry-damp smell that comes even up north after long periods without rain.  However, it was stronger than I ever remember it being.  I assume it is because the rain is dampening and washing away greater accumulated amounts of pollen, dust, decay, etc.  Either that, or the daily variety of scents in a temperate climate cause me not to notice them as much individually.  In the relative absence of odor, maybe anything that is giving off water smells more strongly.

Again, though, I’m jumping ahead.  I spent a day crossing Arizona, through more of the same desert ranch-land.  Here and there, I saw heavily irrigated hay-fields, which stood out as bright green against the beige desert.  Quite a bit of cotton was also grown there.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen a cotton field, and it took me a while to figure out what it was.  There were also fields of sweet sorghum, which is used not only as a feed crop but also, apparently, as a source of ethanol in the Southwest.  It was larger than the sorghum I’d seen growing in the upper Midwest, and I actually had to look it up before deciding if it was that or some odd variety of corn.

All of these crops, all the grazing, all the watering of the many homes in Arizona (the area including Tucson and Phoenix is the 5th-fastest growing region in the country) does not come without a price.  While visiting Casa Grande National Monument in south central AZ, I read a statistic from 1988 that the water level in the aquifer had dropped over a hundred feet in fifty years.  Casa Grande, which I’ll cover in more detail in a later post, is the ruins of a Native American village, complete with four-story buildings, from almost a thousand years ago.  They were primarily an agricultural community, drawing water not only from a complicated system of canals and aqueducts, but also allowing the roots of hardy plants to draw their own water from the aquifer.  Today, the park noted, many of the mesquite trees were dying, as the water level had dropped from an average of twelve feet below the ground to over 120 feet deep, and the roots could no longer reach it.

View of Tucson

Of course, I also came to understand why people might want to live in the desert, when I spent the night with my Aunt Peggy in Tucson.  Her beautiful home in the foothills, with a lovely cactus garden and sun almost every day of the year is certainly inviting!  I did not spend long there, but hope to return again soon for some hiking and exploring, both of the town itself, and the surrounding areas.  Saguaro National Park, in particular, piqued my interest, but I only took a quick drive through the park’s scenic loop road.  This is an example of the Sonoran Desert at its finest: lots of saguaro cacti, plus plenty of prickly pear, barrel cactus, and various agaves and brush species.

Saguaro cacti in Saguaro National Park, outside of Tucson, AZ

I left Tucson for New Mexico, and drove east on I-10 through many, many miles of unvarying terrain.  In Las Cruces, New Mexico, I crossed the Rio Grande River, carrying a little water on its way down to form the southern border of the United States.  It wasn’t quite as “Grande” yet as it would become later.  I continued east in the dark, so I can’t tell you a thing about White Sands except for this: Alamogordo is 70 miles from Las Cruces, and I could see its lights as clearly from one end of that desert as from the other.  It is completely flat and clearly dry.  East of Alamogordo, I began to climb into the mountains – the southern continuation of the Rockies, though much lower in height and the breadth of the range does not extend as far as it does to the north.  Despite the darkness, I could imagine how beautiful the view must be, and I sensed the changing climate around me.  I spent a night in the company of friends near Cloudcroft, in a pine forest – the very high desert, I might call it, and the chill of that mountain night was refreshing after all the warm weather I’d had; it felt good to put on a sweatshirt!

The following day led me to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, in far southeastern NM, and thence to

Guadalupe Mountains

Guadalupe Mountains NP in northwest Texas.  These parks fall within the Chihuahuan Desert, in the Guadalupe Mountain range, which formed as a reef on the edge of a prehistoric inland sea.  The mountains are beautiful, and the variety of vegetation in the low desert, the relatively moist canyons, and the oak-and-pine-covered peaks was amazing.  I definitely liked this place the best of all my desert travels, so you can expect plenty of photos in future posts on the Guadalupes and the Caverns.

Lechugilla agave in the Guadalupe Mountains

Miles and miles of Texas

Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas, and with over five hundred miles to go to Austin, I’m tempted to say it was all downhill from there.  Not true!  I will go into more detail on the mountains of West Texas, the central plains, and the Hill Country, not to mention Austin itself, after the next few posts that will flesh out these desert adventures.  You’ll have to keep tuned for all that excitement!

Lewis and Clark on the Plains

Day 20, 24-35

September 18, 22-23, 2010

Miles 1711 -2541

Washburn, ND to Billings, MT

Capts. William Clark and Meriweather Lewis with one of their host chiefs (from right) at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Washburn ND

Upon reaching the Missouri River in North Dakota, my journey joined up with that of the Corps of Discovery: Lewis and Clark spent their first winter at Fort Mandan, outside of what is now Washburn, ND.   There is a very good Interpretive Center in town, and a few miles down the road Ft. Mandan had been reconstructed (the original site is now underwater, due to the Missouri’s fickle course… and the dam upstream).  Since I’ve been re-listening to Lewis and Clark’s journals on CD (in Landon Jones’s The Essential Lewis and Clark), I did not learn many new facts here, but I was impressed by the reality of their situation.

Fort Mandan reconstruction - this is pretty much all of it!

Ft. Mandan itself (portrayed actual size) was very small for forty men, which I suppose was good considering the frigidity of that winter (40 and 60 below were not uncommon).  The captains bunked together, and there was a room for visitors (eventually occupied by Charbonneau, who was hired that winter as an interpreter, and his wife Sacagawea).  The other men all lived 6-10 in a room, cooking together over the central fireplace and sleeping on buffalo robes in the lofts.  The “fort” was never used for defense, as the Corps had friendly relations with the residents of the neighboring Hidatsa and Arikara villages at the mouth of the Knife River.  They often visited between the settlements, and

Reconstructed earth home at Knife River NHS

members of each culture sometimes spent several days in the other’s encampment.  They hunted jointly and, on a couple occasions, the Americans hurried to defend the Indians from perceived threats. In this way, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark, though employed by the U.S. Army, were less interested in “claiming” the land for their country than in learning more about it, and making peaceful contact with the natives they met.  However, as one of the panels at Washburn’s Interpretive Center pointed out, the white men did honestly believe themselves to be superior to the Indians they met.  They felt that establishing these peaceful relationships would be of long-term benefit not only to their country but to the native tribes themselves, as the Indian nations would be aided by the United States rather than engaged in warfare.  Although Lewis and Clark probably did not anticipate the speed, and certainly not the magnitude, in which these Indians would be displaced, there was never a doubt in their mind that the route they “discovered” would be used for the expansion of the United States of America.  That said, they honestly considered many whom they met to be “friends,” and the Corps enjoyed purely social dancing and other pursuits with Indians, as well as more ceremonial forms of the same interactions.

Depressions in the ground still mark the locations of lodges in the Mandan villages, here at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.

The “friends” there in present-day North Dakota lived a couple miles north-west of the Fort in a group of affiliated villages along the Knife River, where it emptied into the Missouri.  The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara are considered to be the “affiliated tribes” of that region of the Plains, and their villages were situated “close enough to remain friends, but far enough apart so as not to become enemies.”  They lived most of the year in permanent settlements of earth huts, with one

The shifting river bank eroded part of the former Arikara village on this site, exposing historical "trash" buried below the homes.

family to a house.  In the winter, they moved to more temporary houses right along the banks of the river, where they could be better sheltered from wind and snow, and have easy access to wood for heat and cooking.  Those huts were rarely re-used from year to year, even if they were not washed away in spring flooding.  They practiced small-scale agriculture along with hunting and gathering.  As the Corps of Discovery often remarked, buffalo were plentiful in that region of the plains in those days, with tens of thousands sometimes covering the hills.  Of course I have seen artists’ renderings of the game-filled plains, and I tried pretty hard to imagine it myself, but I just couldn’t.  Even in the big National Parks out here, where spaces are vast and many of those species have been re-introduced, the herds are comparatively tiny, and the scale on which those early explorers experienced the Plains can never be experienced again. Most of that, as we know, is the result of the “white man,” and fur traders followed soon after the preliminary publishing of Lewis and Clark’s results.  By the early 1800’s, the huge beaver populations had already dwindled, and as the fur companies moved onto the Great Plains, their commerce turned to buffalo hides.  Fort Union was established as an outpost of John Jacob Astor’s

The Yellowstone (nearer) and Missouri (farther) Rivers come together west of Williston, ND

American Fur Company, near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.  It was not used for defense, but was simply a trading post for exchanging European goods for the furs brought by various Indian nations.  When Lewis and Clark first came to this spot shortly after leaving Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805, they called it the “long hoped-for sight,” and were ready to move into uncharted territory.  On their return journey in 1806, the two captains divided their group into two, with Clark leading one half down the Yellowstone.   He wrote of having to stop the canoes for fully half a day in southern Montana while a herd of bison crossed the river in front of them.  His half of the corps re-convened with Louis’s band on the Missouri in north-west North Dakota.  Twenty-two years later in 1828, Fort Union was

Fort Union National Historic Site - reconstructed on top of the original foundations.

established at that site, fifteen years after that (1837) Indians along the Missouri were nearly decimated by the first of several smallpox epidemics, and twenty-five years after that settlers began arriving in droves

Looking west on the Yellowstone River, just east of present-day Billings, MT. The Yellowstone is the longest un-dammed river in the U.S.

from the east, heightening tensions between the Sioux (including tribes referred to as Asinniboine by the Expedition) and white men.  By that time, buffalo were significantly more scarce than in 1805, the beaver nearly exterminated, and trade relations with natives seriously strained.  In 1867, as gold displaced furs as the treasure of the west, Fort Union was dismantled and its beams recycled to expand the military presence of nearby Fort Buford.   In one human lifetime, the Plains went from a blank spot on a map, teeming with nations, cultures, and the animals on which they depended, to the more barren and homogenous land we know today, fully charted and civilized.

Pompey's Pillar, on the Yellowstone River, was a landmark rock well-known to Indians, and given its present-day name by William Clark in honor of Sacagawea and Charbonneau's toddler son.

Capt. William Clark signed his name on the rock in 1806, alongside Indian carvings. It is the only tangible evidence remaining of the Corps of Discovery's long expedition.

I knew it would be interesting, but I didn't realize how excited I'd be to see this! Here I am, with Clark's signature (right, under glass).

Back on the Prairie

Day 17

September 15, 2010

Mile 1234 – 1390

Fosston, MN to Arvilla, ND

I woke up this morning in Fosston, MN.  At first glance, there’s not much to the place: there are a rusty tank and helicopter memorializing veterans on the east end of town, and three gas stations along the half-mile “main drag.”  There’s even a stoplight, along with a couple businesses named after it (Stoplight Video, Stoplight Corner Store).  This indicates that there may be more to the town than meets the eye.  Fosston (population 1575) is a Minnesota Star City.  It is also an All-America City (1996), a member of the White House Millennium Council (“Honor the Past – Imagine the Future”), a winner of the “First in MN Beautiful Award” and “First in MN Community Improvement.”  It is the recipient of some kind of recognition for Progressive Agricultural and Industrial Development (the seal portrays a horse, winged with poison ivy… no wait, maybe it’s a soybean plant superimposed on a cow).  I’m sure that at least some of this is due to the foresight they had in town planning when they decided to devote the grassy area around their town shop to a fee-based campground.

I can’t really complain about the kids in the yard down the block having a bonfire ‘til the wee hours, about the grain elevator’s fans running through the night, or about the train whistling its way through town at 7 am.  For a tent, it’s only five bucks a night.  The smell of diesel and Fast Orange in the bathroom even made me a feel a little bit at home.  There aren’t a whole lot of other options nearby, actually: somewhere around Lake Itasca I started noticing more pastures, fewer trees.  Placid cows made me forget to look for moose around every corner.  When I pulled up my tent stakes in the morning, they were black with dirt.  With soil.  A couple weeks of sand and stone thinly blanketing the bedrock beneath made me feel like I was in another world.  Now, I’m back on the prairie.  I crossed the tension zone again, and I think I’m finally on the Great Plains.

If I hadn’t picked up on any of those clues, and I hadn’t noticed that Fosston’s motto was “Where the prairie meets the pines,” I could hardly have helped being tipped off by the name of the next town I came to: Fertile.  The scenery between Fosston and Fertile was nearly solidly ag fields – and those almost completely soybean, many already harvested, tilled, and replanted with winter wheat.  Past Fertile, to the north and west, I found a lot of unplowed land, much of it owned or eased by the state, federal agencies, or the Nature Conservancy.  It’s all some mixture of prairie and wetland (miniscule changes in elevation and soil causing the variation).  I spent some time hiking around in the Glacial Ridge Preserve area, a cooperative program among the several agencies.

The Nature Conservancy owns and manages Agassiz Dunes, with help from the Minnesota DNR’s Scientific and Natural Areas.  I hoped to see the star of that region in my hike – the Greater Prairie Chicken, but no dice.  What I did see, after several days’ reprieve, was lots and lots of poison ivy.  Also the last of the summer’s dry prairie blooms: heath aster, bottle gentian, gray goldenrod.  I have to wonder if everything has gone dormant because I’ve been off in the boreal forest so long, or if its due to my northern latitude – I know it’s been consistently at least ten degrees warmer in Madison than up where I am.  At any rate, I didn’t realize it at the time, but the sand blows at Agassiz may have been my last exposure to topography for many, many miles.

After chatting with the TNC crew at the Glacial Ridge Office between Fertile and Crookston, I went off to check out some of the area’s other nice features, including calcareous fen, marsh, wet mesic prairie, and mesic prairie along a former railroad grade.  I had to get used to the directions they gave, though: “ridge” means “area in wetland where ground is a couple feet higher and brush can grow.”  I also found myself wishing that I were better at bird identification, because this is a very popular birding area.  I was able to identify a rough-legged hawk and white-throated sparrow today, although I’m sure a lot of way cooler species got away without me spying them.

After spending much of my day on the prairies, I headed west and north, through Crookston and East Grand Forks, across the Red River of the North, to… North Dakota!  Yes, folks, I made it.  What I have to report is: Grand Forks, ND is nothing to write home about.  And that is being charitable.  If you can’t say something nice…   So I headed west a few more miles and came to Emerado, where I stopped for supper and a beer.  There is an Air Force Base north of “town,” which I did not check out.  I put it in quotes like that, because it is nothing but a looped road of trailer homes, with a bar/café and Dairy Queen at one end.  I immediately impressed the bartender as being a “hard drinker,” when I sat down and ordered a Grain Belt.  I assured her that I was from Wisconsin and could handle it.  I won her favor even further when I downed an entire 10” frozen pizza all by myself.  On my way out an hour or so later, when she and her friends urged me to come in again, I told them I was headed west, across the state.  I explained my mission to check out North Dakota.

“Oh,” they assured me, “North Dakota’s really not that bad.  It’s flat here, but it’s not that bad.”

“You poor SOB, you came in through Grand Forks – you should have come from the other direction!”

“Out in the western part of the state it gets nicer, more like badlands.”

And my personal favorite: “I come from Minnesota, where at least we have trees!  We may not have rolling hills, either, but at least there were trees…”

This last led me to learn my first new term for this state: shelter belt.  Tune in next time to find out what exactly it means…